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The 'Clean Coal' Myth

The phrase "clean coal" is polluting the energy debate. The phrase is an oxymoron. We can come up with ways to clean up after coal - many of them very expensive and, in the case of coal's greenhouse gas emissions, untried. And we can use coal more efficiently than in the past. But coal itself is not clean and never will be. That is a matter of chemistry and geology.

That hasn't stopped the phrase "clean coal" from seeping into politics like coal dust on a Beijing morning. Indeed it's likely viewers will hear the phrase at least a couple of times in Thursday's vice presidential debate.

Sarah Palin used the phrase "clean coal" at least twice during her speech at the Republican National Convention.

And last weekend the Obama campaign tried to defuse a controversy set off when Sen. Joe Biden was quoted as saying that he and Obama did not support any new coal plants in the United States, including "clean coal."

The McCain campaign quickly put up radio ads in places like Colorado and Ohio highlighting Biden's comment. "Clean Coal is important to America. And to Ohio," said the script. "For Ohioans, coal means thousands of jobs. Economic growth. More affordable electricity. For America, coal means energy independence. And clean coal means cleaner air. But Obama-Biden and their liberal allies oppose clean coal."

The Obama campaign did not respond by saying there's no such thing as clean coal. That would be too subtle for the intense campaign season. In Colorado, The Denver Post quoted an Obama campaign spokesman, Matt Chandler, as saying that "Sens. Obama and Biden are committed to investing in clean coal and developing five 'first-of-a-kind' commercial scale clean coal-fired plants in the U.S."

But the truth is this: There is simply no such thing as clean coal. Prying it loose from the ground is a dirty business and burning it produces a variety of pollutants and greenhouse gases. The Clean Air Act and subsequent regulations have sharply reduced nitrogen oxide and sulfur dioxide emissions that caused smog, soot and acid rain by forcing utilities to build expensive scrubbers. Now many environmentalists are trying to block new coal-fired power plants because the existing ones produce 36 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions.

This is controversial because half of U.S. electricity comes from coal-fired plants, and if U.S. electricity consumption keeps rising the way it has for most of this decade, the country will need more electricity-generating plants. Then there are all the coal mining jobs in the country, especially in swing states like Ohio and Colorado.

To be sure, there are cleaner ways to burn coal, all things being relative. New coal plants operate more efficiently than old ones and therefore burn about a third less coal. And companies have been trying to come up with ways to isolate carbon dioxide from exhaust gases and bury it in the ground.

What do politicians and coal boosters mean when they talk about "clean coal?"

To some politicians, the phrase "clean coal" may seem like shorthand for technology that would separate carbon dioxide out of the exhaust of a coal-fired plant and bury it in the ground. So far, however, no coal plant like that exists in the United States, though a handful of companies are interested in building one. Such plants are expensive and untested. The Energy Department recently announced that it would hand out billions to a few firms to try out technology to capture and bury carbon dioxide in the ground. The financial rescue bill passed by the Senate Wednesday night included tax credits to firms that do that. But it will be many, many years before any carbon sequestration plant is in operation.

I've also heard many utilities, coal companies and politicians use the phrase "clean coal" to describe certain coal plants that convert coal to energy with an efficiency rate of over 40 percent, compared to older plants that function just over 30 percent. These plants, called "supercritical" plants, operate at higher pressures and higher temperatures and burn coal more efficiently, thus requiring less coal to generate the same amount of electricity. But either kind of plant still produces emissions.

The way big coal companies and industry associations use the phrase "clean coal" often makes coal seem like an easy and relatively harmless way out of our energy and climate change problems. Take the group "American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity." (And who wouldn't be for clean coal electricity?)

On their web site: "Thanks to an abundance of coal, combined with American ingenuity and advanced technologies, we don't have to choose between affordable energy and improved air quality," the ACCCE says. "That's right -- electricity from coal is getting even cleaner everyday."

But we do have to make choices about our energy future. And we're not really making them.

I'm not saying that we should switch off all the coal plants. Our current dependence on coal-fired electricity can't be denied or wished away. But let's have an honest, more dispassionate debate about the future.

Whether we want to continue building new coal plants should be a question that weighs: Americans' desire for cheap electricity, the steep costs and uncertain technology for capturing carbon dioxide and burying it in the ground, the cost of renewable energy sources, our capacity to use existing electricity supplies more efficiently, and the uncertain but potentially catastrophic consequences of climate change.

Those issues are tough enough without hinting at easy solutions that don't exist.

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Comments (31)

SteveK4 Author Profile Page:

I took the suggestion of SKADEL1 and did a 1 minute search of the internet. Here's what I found about the Dakota Gas plant he mentioned, which he wants us to believe is not "impossibly expensive".

An article by Richard Martinabout discussed the realities of Carbon Capture technology. Starting inauspiciously with the demise of the FutureGen "clean coal" power plant in January 2008, it continues with a discussion of exactly why the project was an administrative boondoggle, and then goes on to the technical aspects. These technical aspects appear to have brought about the still births of three other grand plans for clean coal electrical generation. The problem according to Martin is that while storing carbon dioxide is quite feasible, building the equipment and infrastructure to do so is extremely expensive. He cites the history of the Dakota Gas plant near Bismarck, which converts coal to methane, burns it to produce electricity, with the resulting CO2 waste being piped to Canada where it is used to help bring oil to the surface from what would otherwise bean unproductive oil field. This plant, constructed following the Jimmy Carter era energy crunch cost some $2 billion, and filed for bankruptcy the day it opened operations. Considering increased costs, including government regulatory and bureaucratic red tape, the price tag would have to be much greater today. If the Dakota plant was economically unviable when it opened, then it is also unlikely that a similar plant would be more viable today, unless improved technology would make a tremendous difference. In Texas, TXU Power recently scrapped plans for a similar plant because the available technology is not suitable for use with the available coal supplies. It therefore appears that the situation is more complex than originally believed.

skadel1 Author Profile Page:

"So far, however, no coal plant like that exists in the United States, though a handful of companies are interested in building one. Such plants are expensive and untested. The Energy Department recently announced that it would hand out billions to a few firms to try out technology to capture and bury carbon dioxide in the ground. The financial rescue bill passed by the Senate Wednesday night included tax credits to firms that do that. But it will be many, many years before any carbon sequestration plant is in operation."

This statement is simply in error. CO2 emissions from a coal gas energy plant in North Dakota have been getting pumped into the ground (albeit beneath Canada) via a pipeline for some 8 years already. It is thus NOT years away, NOT (apparently, as the company is profitable) impossibly expensive, not untested, and not some "lie" promulgated by energy and/or the government. See the following webpage, FYI:

http://www.basinelectric.com/Energy_Resources/Gas/CO2_Sequestration/index.html

Ignoring (or continuing to be unaware of) information that is obtainable from a 1-minute web search is not helpful in what is a very important discussion affecting the future of our nation and the world as a whole.

xSamplex Author Profile Page:

Only a fool with no understanding of chemistry and combustion would accept the phrase "clean coal" at face value. It is propaganda generated by the coal industry. What next, "family porn"?

America is no longer just a country of poorly informed citizens. We now actively applaud anti-intellectualism as authentic Americanism. As such, moronic concepts like clean coal gain traction. The average citizen is wholly unfit to make decisions about technical issues like this. Instead, they can be lead like sheep by a catchy marketing slogan that appeals to their biases.

arjay1 Author Profile Page:

Note the following world energy analysis:

______________2010___2020___2030___2040___2050___2060___2070
remaining oil:___870bbl__640bbl__430bbl_250bbl__150bbl__80bbl__10bbl
biofuels:_______.38 bbl__1.29bbl__5.35bbl_9.76bbl_19.8bbl_27.4bbl__41.2bbl
remaining gas:___6.2tcf___5.8tcf___4.8tcf___3.7tcf___3.1tcf__2.5tcf___1.8tcf
wind power:____98gwh__160gw__190gwh_300gwh_400gwh_ 590gwh_520gwh
ITER Tokamaks:_______________18gwh__37gwh_330gwh_412gwh__654gwh
EGS Geothermal:_10gwh__25gwh_55gwh_90gwh_260gwh__390gwh__590gwh
Nuclear:_______360gwh_380gwh_540gwh_760gwh_1000gwh_760gwh_420gwh

Sources: MIT and Oxford energy studies, ITER is very speculative.

Coal, even after 2060, is also a very viable energy source but requires a ‘miraculous’ emissions filter. Solar also has potential but might total less than 6 percent of the world’s need and is costly. Note also that nuclear energy fuel is finite. The old standby, hydroelectric power, could be increased considerably if a miracle called ‘super conductive generator’ came along. A superconductive generator might also be a miracle with wind power and tidal generation but the temperatures involved are so touchy the generator couldn't operate in a normal environment. The unfortunate bottom line is that as the 'renewables' come into existence, they will only produce about half the energy being consumed in 2020. Consumption itself will have to come down no matter what. The good old days are definitely over, but fighting over what's left could be catastrophic.

SteveK4 Author Profile Page:

A lot of people think that use of coal for electricity went out of use in the late 1800s or early 1900s. But coal actually provides more than 50% of our electricity today, something that many people are surprised to learn. So we won't be able to stop using coal overnight (as much as I wish we could).

Even if we could start making plastics out of coal, and sequestering the carbon that way, we'd still have to MINE the stuff - and that's a big problem because it means mountaintop removal (an abomination!) or longwall mining (the underground equivalent of mountaintop removal) practiced in southwestern PA and IL, which causes surface subsidence that dries up streams, wetlands, and aquifers; cracks the walls and foundations of homes and other structures; and generally disrupts the lives and livelihoods of surface landowners. Then you have to clean and process the coal, which entails additional pollution and other impacts to surface and underground waters.

The Cape Cod experience with wind farms, as recent as that was, is not the norm any more. New Jersey just approved its first major offshore wind farm project (a grid of 96 turbines 16.5 miles offshore that will produce 350 megawatts, enough to power 125,000 homes). Now, you have to understand that in NJ, shore tourism is a MAJOR industry, and beachfront homes are outrageously expensive. But this wind farm will not affect views or tourism. And the $1 billion project is being encouraged by the State (which plans for an additional 650 megawatts in its current Energy Plan), although only a fraction of the cost is State subsidized.

The tide is turning. Wind and solar projects are popping up everywhere. The Coal River Mountain Watch folks in West Virginia have proposed a major wind farm as a viable alternative to the mountaintop removal coal mine proposed for the mountain there. Even if the wind project causes temporary visual impacts, the people who live there believe that that is preferable to blowing up the mountain and dumping all of the rubble into the streams and valleys. It is estimated that the wind project will save more than 500,000 acres of land and forestall the other impacts of the mining operation which include the burial of streams, the poisoning of drinking water, increases in flooding, damages to homes and personal property, and the devastation of wildlife habitat.

I'm sorry, but coal is a fossil fuel, it is almost pure carbon, and it is the PROBLEM, not the solution, to America's energy and the world's environmental problems.

anhart Author Profile Page:

CO2 sequestering is rather ironic. One of the best carbon sequester materials is ... COAL ! In other words, we are undoing the sequestering that mother nature has already done for us. Same for natural gas, oil, etc.
Thorium based nuclear power is a good answer. "Normal" uranium power is also good, with breeder reactors, and fast ion reactors to convert the final waste into a small volume, 500 year old half life, non - weaponisable end of life product.

arjay1 Author Profile Page:

TO STEVEK4:
Don't dismiss 'clean coal' too quickly: the Perot Charts on energy (perotcharts.com) show coal is 40% of American electrical production. There is a scientific research plot to convert CO2 emissions into carbon plastics rather than make them from refined petroleum products as they do now. This has been show to be possible with less energy consumed than with heavily refined oil producing plastic. If the CO2 emissions are captured properly, the coal burning for electricity might turn out to be more useful than previously thought.

arjay1 Author Profile Page:

TO AXMZRAZOR:
I am well aware of B’ANAISM. I lived in Hyannis Port, Cape Cod at the time the controversy about the wind generators was going on and they had generated a picture of the coast line with the foils sticking up out of the water. It was pretty awful looking, even if it would generate about half the area’s electricity. The liberal hypocrisy was also evident in that the current power was being generated by a nuclear power plant at the entrance to Cape Cod and they wanted this shut down because it was a being accused of being the cause of unusual levels of cancer and other medical problems near Plymouth (of Rock fame) and Quincy. It did not take long for MIT’s meteorology department to point out that the prevailing winds in the area went from Northwest to the Outer Banks southeast of the Cape and the nuclear plant couldn’t possibly be the cause of the very real medical problems. It turned out the problem was coming from 300 years of human generated carcinogens in Bahston harbor which is upwind of Plymouth and the Cape.
The same B’ANAISM problem current exists in the mountains near Virginia Tech where an experimental wind farm is proposed. This is on the southern edge of the stripped mountains and would impact the local view. However, a string of those wind farms going north is going to be in areas that only the coal miners have been and it would be a stretch to say that wind foils look awful there, especially since you might not need the high towers for them. B’ANAISM is well in west Florida also, where one must overlook the fact that a carefully designed oil rig becomes an excellent habitat for marine life like edible shrimp and sea bass. Unfortunately , ‘me first’ seems to override the third law of Creational Dynamics which says you cannot have energy without first having space and time.

SteveK4 Author Profile Page:

The original topic was the oxymoron "Clean Coal", and now we're getting into various alternatives which is fine, but I'd like to bring us back to coal.

The whole intent of the devious "clean coal" marketing campaign is to justify the continued use of coal. Of course we won't be able to stop using coal all at once. What we have to stop doing right now, though, is wasting any more research money on trying to develop clean coal technologies, CCS, or anything that would rely on the future use of coal. Sure, coal is here and available. But energy from the sun is even more widely available. Tidal energy is available. Wind energy is available. And we don't have to tear apart the earth and pollute our land, water, and air to use them.

What we need is an intensive effort - full steam ahead - developing and improving truly green, non-fossil fuel alternatives (solar, wind, tidal, geothermal). This has to happen in both the public and private sectors, although it will require a strong "moonshot" policy at the top to get it going and sustain it. Some of the money will come from diverting the subsidies now showered on big oil/gas/coal. Some will come from a carbon tax, which will not only level the playing field when the alternatives compete with coal, but will be an incentive for coal plants to find ways to improve their operations until they are decommissioned. We've got to develop and improve (and thereby make much cheaper) the green technologies (A) for our own use and (B) to sell to the rest of the world (esp. India and China). Wouldn't it be great if America could start leading on this issue, and start making things that the rest of the world wants and needs.

"Clean coal" is a boondoggle we cannot afford and a distraction from what really needs to be done.

EnergyBoy Author Profile Page:

Forget all the coal is bad or good. The real deal is coal is here for the time being. Ignoring that fact is silly. We should embrace the industries effort to clean it up. Nuclear Energy is the future don't kid yourself but coal is the present. Solar and Wind are a drop in the bucket and more of a feel good option than a true solution (for now).

raschumacher Author Profile Page:

Global warming is not caused by living things exhaling, because the CO2 emitted by their bodies comes from recycled CO2 that was recently in the atmosphere anyway. Global warming is worsened by the release of additional CO2 derived from fossil carbon fuels (coal, oil and natural gas) that were buried hundreds of millions of years ago.

The observed rate of increase of CO2 in the air shows that we are releasing at least 10 billion tons of excess CO2 every year that can't be absorbed by natural processes. That's 1200 cubic miles of gas, equal to 1.5 cubic miles of liquefied CO2, every year. In comparison nuclear energy creates a few hundred cubic yards of high-level waste each year, an amount that could be stored inside one building. Our fossil fuel waste problem is literally a billion times bigger than our nuclear waste problem.

The lowest estimate of the cost of capturing and permanently storing our excess fossil CO2 is about $40 per ton of carbon. At that price coal and oil are more expensive than all non-fossil energy sources, nuclear, wind, geothermal, and Solar.

CO2 can be turned into raw materials and fuels, but doing so requires an energy input. And of course to avoid adding even more net CO2 to the air the source of that energy would have to be non-fossil.

“Clean coal” is a fantasy and a lie, a distraction from the energy solutions the world needs to start using now.

akmzrazor Author Profile Page:

arjay1 :

I agree but do you know what happened when Wind energy companies tried to start building windwills on mountain tops? People started complaining becuase they though it ruined the vista. One of the biggest obstacles for wind energy is B'NANAism Build Nothing Anywhere Near Anything. One of the most perfect places for windmills is off of Cape Cod. There is an almost constant and steady wind there 24 hours a day. However, there has been a huge fight over it there led by the one of the left's biggest heros, Ted Kennedy. He doesn't want is scenic view compromised.

akmzrazor Author Profile Page:

Comunista:

Umm, Hydrogen doesn't come from fossil fuels. Hydrogen is present in living things in the form of water. This dissipates shortly after death and since by definition fossils are dead, they contain such trace amounts of it, that it would never be considered a viable source. Every single hydrogen producing experiment I've ever seen invloves extracting it from water.

Oh, and in case you were going to argue the fossil fuel engery cost in producuing it, you really need to look how far it has come and not where it is right now. The reality is that over the past five year as technology has improved it gets cheaper and cheaper to produce and requires less and less energy. The stuff that they are working on right now in Holland, Finland and Switzerland, is pretty cool stuff.

Did you know that the part of method of creating hydrogen from water mirrors the same process of desalinizing saltwater for drinking. In 10-15 years we could potentialy have solar powered hydrogen plants using seawater to simultaneuosly produce enough hydrogen to power a small city and provide it with clean drinking water. How is that for eco-friendly.

However the viability of this technology along with solar,wind and geothermal is still at least a decade away. Even then it will still take at least another decade to become main stream (unless you expect the government to buy everyone a new car). In the meantime we still need something to provide that energy and the only thing capable of it is fossil fuels. This is one of two major areas and one minor area I side with McCain. Everythign else, I tend to agree with Obama or neither of them. Any energy policy that doesn't recognize that we will still need fossil fuels as a major source of energy over the next 20-30 years is pure fantasy. Not only that, but energy independence is the single most important step towards solving the two most significant problems we face today. Terrorism and the economy. Did you know that 80 percent of our trade deficit is due to buying energy from other countries. Countries that support terrorists. In the past ten years we have sent 10 times the amount of money in this bailout package overseas. The cost of the war is a drop in the bucket compared to how much money we give away buying energy.

A side note-- When is comes to cost of the war you must realize that 90% of that money will return to the government at some point in the form of taxes over the next 3-5 years. That money goes to pay salaries and buy goods from american companies, who in turn pay taxes and pay thier employees who pay taxes, who use that money to buy goods and services from companies who pay taxes and pay salaries on so on...

We get far less of a return on investment when buy energy.

arjay1 Author Profile Page:

If you check out satillite images of West Virginia and Ohio, you will see an appalling mountain top landscape created by top stripping for coal. There are also deep pits in mountain sides. But these mountain tops also have a nearly constant 15 mile an hour wind, nearly perfect for wind generators. You might not even have to put the generators on 200 foot towers. Would a wind farm in the Appalachians produce 2 terawatts of electricity that is more than all of the coal generators combined? Could those deep pits be converted to lakes that generate another terawatt of hydroelectric power?

Comunista Author Profile Page:

DRWHO2- yeah, and odds are, the energy source of that hydrogen is probably a fossil fuel. You pan these other energy sources like methane and ethanol for producing CO2 and that that's somehow 'not clean', yet for the foreseeable future you're going to be getting plenty more CO2 and CO just to produce a tank of compressed H2.

And there's a lot beyond CO2 with some fuels that is unclean that for some reason you weren't talking about. Particularly coal. Not so much with ethanol, and DEFINITELY not with natural gas. Way to miss that.

jamesmoylan Author Profile Page:

dhilleub commented
"The entire conversation surrounding the goal of eliminating CO2 emissions by coal-fire plants centres on the concept of sequestration -- Is it feasible? How much will it cost? How long will it take to develop? Should we subsidise it?"
___________________________________________
And here we have the nub of the problem.
Clean coal technology doesn't and can't exist.
Just think about the volumes here. The total amount of CO2 successfully sequestered in all of the tests and during the entire life of the three sample sites set up in Aus adds up to one fifth of one percent of our daily coal-generated co2 emissions.
And we are tiny in comparison with you guys!

The term 'clean coal' is repeated at every opportunity by the coal lobby as a way of greenwashing their industry.

They know that CO2 sequestration will never work - they have the definitive data at hand.

Any sane person who considers the mechanical dynamics of the various proposed systems of 'clean coal' sequestration will just begin to giggle.

Imagine trying to capture and bury, under immense pressure, hundreds of thousands of litres of liquid CO2 everyday, day after day.

How much do you pay for a bottle of CO2 gas now?
Why?

It's like taking seriously the idea that we might capture and compress all the cow farts in the outback.
Plain impossible!

So why do we hear about it eternally?
When you next hear someone use the term 'clean coal' tell them, immediately and categorically, that it simply doesn't exist.

We might as well discuss the mating habits of unicorns.

DrWho2 Author Profile Page:

BTW The combustion of methane (ch4) is produces by products carbon dioxide and monoxide, so it is not "clean". Same with ethanol. Any molecule that contains a carbon in it will produce co & co2 when combusted. The only clean combustion is the combustion of hydrogen. VW has already come up with a car that runs only on hdrogen (vrs hybrids that use gas also). The Germans will out compete us if we don't push for hydrogen cars.

dhilleub Author Profile Page:

The entire conversation surrounding the goal of eliminating CO2 emissions by coal-fire plants centers on the concept of sequestration -- Is it feasible? How much will it cost? How long will it take to develop? Should we subsidize it? -- Etc. Etc. Lost in all of this is any meaningful consideration of possible alternatives to stuffing this stuff in the ground.

To wit: Has anyone given any thought to converting CO2 into methanol or methane for use as a fuel? What about using it as a feedstock for the production of plastics - carbon is carbon, after all. There must be some clever chemists or microbiologists out there who have some ideas on the subject. If so, why hasn't any of this become part of the public debate?

SteveK4 Author Profile Page:

Safely and permanently sequestering carbon dioxide underground is basically the same problem as safely disposing of nuclear waste. And the experts have been trying to solve that problem for decades without success.

jedrothwell1 Author Profile Page:

Much as I despise coal, I think you should grant that sequestering coal would make it "clean" in nearly every sense, except that it would deplete oxygen. Some experts have recently been saying that this is a more serious problem than people realize. They call this "the other side of the CO2 problem."

Anyway, solution to the energy crisis is cold fusion. Despite what you read in the newspapers, cold fusion was replicated by hundreds of world-class labs such as Los Alamos, and great progress in it has been made. At the ICCF-14 conference in Washington, DC (August 2008), researchers from Italy and Israel described cells that produce 20 to 50 times more output energy than input, at absolute power levels of 20 W or more (from a device the size of a coin). Cold fusion has been blocked by academic politics and ridicule in the press. If these problems can be overcome it could probably be commercialized in 5 or 10 years, and it would be thousands of times cheaper and cleaner than any other source of energy.

See: http://lenr-canr.org/

- Jed Rothwell

SteveK4 Author Profile Page:

No matter how “clean” the burning of coal and the disposal of its waste may ultimately become (and even the coal industry admits it will take about 15 years and at least $17 billion), the extraction of coal is still an environmental disaster, one which seems to be immune from the regulatory safeguards that govern all other industrial activities.

When mountaintops are being blown away and valleys filled with rubble, when farmfields and streams are being subsided and dried up, when homes and communities are literally being shaken apart, it’s hard to say the process is “clean”.

The dirty truth is that coal must still be extracted from underground or stripped off the surface, processed, and transported by train or truck in violation of our environment and our communities--and all this before it ever reaches an imaginary "clean coal" plant.

Saying you support “clean coal” sounds like you support motherhood and apple pie, but it’s intentionally misleading. Unfortunately, support for “clean coal” is like supporting “dry water”, because it doesn’t exist yet. Burning coal cleanly has yet to be successfully demonstrated in any large-scale project, and carbon capture and storage (CCS) is likewise unproven. (NOTE: a new GAO report released this week concludes as much.) Unless and until “clean coal” becomes a reality, power plants will continue to burn the dirtiest of all fossil fuels, which is responsible for much of the nation’s carbon emissions, as well as significant contributions to acid rain, smog, and mercury. If we are going to invest precious time and money developing new energy technologies, it shouldn’t be one that tears up the earth and that relies on a carbon-based fuel.

jkoch2 Author Profile Page:

Strange the article makes no mention of coal gas, which supposedly yields more energy than the coal burned to create it. Might that at least reduce the gross coal burned to yield X amount of electicity?

The "biofuels" panacea is possibly even more misleading than "clean coal." Distillation of grass cellulose to ethanol can certainly occur, but probably at even more fuel, water, and transport costs than corn ethanol. The grazing lands displaced might also affect meat prices the same way corn ethanol production raises corn prices.

Coal is "clean" in the popular psyche because it comes from North America, entails less dependence on the Mideast, and is familiar. Most folks have no clue about its radioactive residue, which they probably assume that nuclear plants spew out. But the truth is not entirely the opposite, since the nuke plants do require delivery and disposal of very "hot" stuff that nasty people might try to steal, unleash, or disseminate in dangrous ways. Coal dust is explosive, but a coal bomb is not going to devastate a US city or make its center poisonous for years.

Of course, we can just continue to buy foreign oil or imagine that the "plug-in" Volt will run on electricity from backyard windmills.

cargocult Author Profile Page:

Think of coal as a big sponge - a carbon filter that sucks up whatever metals, sulfur, arsenic, etc. are in the water. Depending on the local geological history, the coal will have various toxic contaminants. They're difficult to remove, though it can be done. The sulfur, arsenic and mercury still have to be disposed of, however, and solid coal ash is toxic stuff:http://washingtonindependent.com/2515/dont-drink-the-water-clean-coals-downside

With clean coal, CO2 is still emitted to the atmosphere, meaning that global warming futures will be unchanged. The billion-dollar DOE coal-to-hydrogen / carbon-capture power plant, FutureGen, was a flop. The technology has been under wraps for over five years, and there is doubt that it even works as advertised.

The real energy solutions are wind, solar and biomass. Biomass ash is not heavily contaminated with toxic metals like mercury, and can be used as a phosphate fertilizer (as in the sugarcane ethanol process). Biomass is limited, however - wind, solar and natural gas / nuclear are the more plausible long term & short term solutions.

Wind and solar expansion will also require billions in investment in a better electrical grid, but the same is true for nuclear or natural gas. Massive infrastructure investment is needed right now - but the credit system is incapable of financing it, and the existing fossil fuel interests are frightened of change.

Panic attack.

mobedda Author Profile Page:

THANK YOU FOR THIS COLUMN!

The combustion side of things has been thoroughly tackled above, so I simply want to ad that getting this stuff out of the ground is laying waste to VAST stretches of our beloved America as well. Google "mountaintop removal" if you are unaware of the extent of the damage.

"Clean coal" is a multifariously deadly hoax, my friends.

steveboyington Author Profile Page:

Clean coal is just like sh-t that smells like ice cream. Unfortunately, we all end up eating the clean coal, so smell doesn't matter.

popgoestheweeble Author Profile Page:

It's true that mining is certianly a dirty business and always will be, but at least there are technologies in development to reduce the toxicity of combustion. Take a look at Thermoenergy's technology:
http://www.thermoenergy.com/energyTechnology.html

GE has a competing technology, and of course numerous companies exist in the market for various forms of pollution control equipment (such as Turbosonic, FuelTech, etc.)

This is where the government shoould be spending 700 billion. Just pour the funds into the energy infrastructure of this country and we can easily create an economy that would dwarf the dotcom boom in wealth creation.

agapn9 Author Profile Page:

Wind and solar power represent an 8 to 1 return on investment. Coal contains mercury and arsenic. Eventually we will find some good use for it - but we shouldn't burn it unless we like putting more mercury and arsenic into the ecosystem.

MzFitz Author Profile Page:

RE:"It is interesting the author of this editorial uses the same "clean coal is an oxymoron" mantra as do the green socialists who want to topple capitalism."

There is no need to topple capitalism. The damage that strip mining does to the landscape is, at best, catastrophic. It is in the best interest of local communities near strip mining to push for a change in direction. Many of these sites are located in prime wind-farm areas. Wind-farms may change the landscape, but they do not destroy it beyond repair. This would also mean a shift from blue-collar work to green-collar work, which would be much safer.

pjacobson Author Profile Page:

Steve is right to observe that "clean coal" defined as capturing CO2 emissions and burying them underground is decades and billions of dollars away from wide-scale deployment. It's worth pursuing because we have so much coal, but don't count on it for a long time and plan to pay a lot more for your electricity. On the other hand, Al Gore's call for civil disobedience against all things coal related is ludicrous since coal keeps the lights on 12 hours a day, US energy consumption is expected to increase 50% in the next 25 years and every objective expert concedes that coal will be with us as a major energy source for decades to come. Instead focusing on the bipolar arguments about coal, we should look at the middle ground and adopt -- not "clean" -- but "cleaner" coal technologies availble today that improve the emissions performance of today's vast coal infrastructure. These technologies, such as pre-combustion coal refinement and supercritical boilers, can bridge us to a future when carbon capture and storage is perfected, more nuclear plants are on line and wind, solar, alternatives, and conservation have taken a meaningful hold.

Essex1 Author Profile Page:

Today the population of Asia and India, by simply breathing, release more CO2 to the atmosphere than all U.S. coal-fired powerplants, combined.

When we start down the road of regulating and outlawing CO2 emissions, at what point does the right to live and breath require a permit?

It is interesting the author of this editorial uses the same "clean coal is an oxymoron" mantra as do the green socialists who want to topple capitalism.

If CO2 is "dirty" then there is no fossil fuel, no manufacturing, no farming, no creation of any goods, no human activity of any kind that is not "dirty." Interestingly, the U.S. remains the "Saudi Arabia of coal" in the world, with reserves and production capacity that can last us 200 years. It is our "ace in the hole" in a world where peak oil threatens our economy with recession, hyperinflation, and perpetual involvement in international conflicts. We should be encouraging coal expansion, rather than sabatoging it.

EarlC Author Profile Page:

I was wondering when "clean coal" would be challenged. I had a preacher once who asked about "clean" cigarettes. Coal is a carbon-containing compound. Even if it could be cleaned up to where only carbon dioxide and water are produced, carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas. So, there you are.

The byproducts of nuclear energy are heat and nuclear wastes. When we stopped the research for breeder reactors, we essentially stopped the research into how to render nuclear wastes "safe."

The cleanest "fuels" are solar, wind, and geothermal. Even tidal energy is clean. Anything that requires burning generates gaseous byproducts.

Why we haven't developed clean fuels is a mystery unless one considers the fact that petroleum, coal, and natural gas have been easily obtained.

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